The "lesson of Vietnam" is many things to many people. To the military, the lesson is never to commit forces without being committed to winning. In the Bush administration, this interpretation has been refined into the "doctrine of invincible force."
This theory basically says that unless the U.S. and its allies can amass a force that can completely--and quickly--annihilate the enemy, then no force should be used. In other words, U.S. military policy seems to be boxed in by only two options for every crisis: over-whelming force or none at all.
This all-or-nothing strategy of military action has encouraged the United States to undertake easy battles in Grenada and Panama and to fight a more challenging (and still mostly successful) war in the Persian Gulf.
Yet the invincible force concept is seriously flawed. Less visible than the victories--but just as crucial in terms of measuring the success of U.S. foreign policy--are several ongoing failures resulting from the Bush administration's devotion to the idea.
In Yugoslavia, for example, President Bush, Pentagon officials and other military experts have been openly skeptical about what military force can achieve. They often cite fear of being drawn into a "quagmire" as reasons for avoiding the use of force. Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney expresses this view with particular vigor. It is apparent that because the situation in Yugoslavia seems so messy--because the prospects of a speedy solution seem uncertain--the president has determined that no action is the right action. But he is wrong.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has outlined several military steps that will help turn back Serbian aggression in Bosnia.
The first is to send arms to the Bosnian forces. Next, she advocates the bombing of Serb heavy artillery and the supply lines running from Serbia to proxy forces in Bosnia.
These actions, while lacking the glamour of Desert Storm, will help accomplish what Bush labeled as the main principle of Desert Storm and the centerpiece of the New World Order: the turning back of aggression.
Similarly, the desperate situation in Somalia, where 4.5 million people are at risk of starvation, could be greatly eased if some moderate military steps were taken.
The major cause of famine in Somalia is not the lack of food, but rather the problems with food distribution. Roving gangs often intercept food before it can reach the areas where it is needed immediately. A convoy of several thousand armed troops, similar to what U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is proposing, would ensure that food is delivered quickly and efficiently.
Yet the United States, the lone superpower and supposedly the leader of the "new world," has been absent in supplying the initiative and resources to mount such an operation. The U.S. aversion to limited military commitments is again hampering a sensible and moral foreign policy.
The only place the United States is currently leading a small-scale military operation is in Iraq, where the U.S., Britain and France have established a "no-fly zone" to protect Shiite rebels in the south.
Sadly but characteristically, this move is an overdue, insufficient and purely political one.
The Shiites have been persecuted relentlessly since the end of the Gulf War, most violently right after the cease-fire.
Yet it was only in August, little more than two months before the election, that Bush's acutely timed sense of outrage appeared. And anyway, the belated operation will make little real difference for the Shiites. Much of the Iraqi persecution is being carried out by ground troops, and still there are no plans to stop Iraq's army.
Bush, his surrogates and many pundits talked a lot at the end of the Persian Gulf War about how its success had exorcised the demons of Vietnam. In reality, though, U.S. military policy has only taken a first step. We have overcome our total reluctance to using force. But like a baby learning to walk, our government still clings to the doctrine of invincible force as a security blanket against another fall.
As the desperate situations in Somalia and Bosnia demonstrate, we should grow up in a hurry.
David L. Bosco '95 is a contributing writer for The Crimson's editorial board.
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